Failure is important for everyone, not just writers

Interview to Mark Haber
By Óscar Alarcón, for La Jornada Aguascalientes
January 3, 2018

Óscar Alarcón, a renown literary journalist based in Puebla, México, interviewed our author Mark Haber for La Jornada Aguascalientes. They had an interesting conversation about his stories, the US, and the absurdity of war. We hope you like it.

ÓSCAR ALARCÓN

In your story “Fantastic Consequences” we can feel the absurdity of American holidays, but they also the ones we have here in Mexico, plus the slothfulness of the human race in general. Sometimes it feels like traditions are set on stone, unmovable, how do you feel about traditions in today’s society? Do we still need them?

MARK HABER

The story is meant to take absurdity to its illogical conclusion, mostly through exaggeration. But in general, I’ve never really enjoyed holidays. I don’t like the idea that everything stops, things are closed and everyone is expected to do the same thing. There’s something about this that has always depressed me. It’s not like I don’t want people to enjoy themselves, but there’s something about the uniformity of holidays that has always left a bad taste in my mouth.

I was also satirizing the idea that people are desperately looking for tradition, searching it out even, and often for the most absurd reasons. I wasn’t poking fun at traditions as much as expressing the idea that if large groups of people are given the choice between bad and good they’ll almost always choose bad. I think people need traditions and customs, maybe not as necessary as food and water, but people expect these things and I was merely asking, are they? I don’t have the answer (I don’t think there is an answer) but it’s the question to me that’s more important. Satire isn’t usually black and white and it’s not explicitly saying “this is wrong”. Often, it’s simply about asking the question, a question that has no answer.

ÓSCAR ALARCÓN

In “How the Common Manage”, one of the stories that shook me the most, you go over several forms of social criticism, however, now that your book is translated into Spanish, I’d like to now, what is language for you?

MARK HABER

Language is everything to me, especially the voice or tone. I think many people get caught up in story or plot and that has never interested me. I don’t begin to write when I have the idea of a plot but when I hear a voice. Once I have the voice (often it’s first-person, so the voice of the narrator) then I’m off and running. The voice of “How the Common Manage” is influenced by the narrator Henderson from Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. An arrogant, over-the-top person, a narcissist only interested in his own self-improvement and what makes him happy. In this sense, language is very important to me for the voice (or character) is the story.

mark_haber2

ÓSCAR ALARCÓN

The stories “Jinx” and “Speech on the Deathbed Edition” made me realize that sometimes, Mexican literature avoids certain themes. In the case of the first story, I think it is because we haven’t been through something like the Holocaust; as for the second story, the literary canon. They’re both an example of how American authors write about some themes shamelessly. What literary tools do you use to write about these ideas, politically incorrect at times, and come out alive?

MARK HABER

“Jinx” and “The Speech on the Deathbed Edition”, to me are very different stories. “Jinx” is simply a strange little tale that takes an absurd idea—that the snores of dead people or other people have been borrowed or taken—and makes it even more absurd. The reader takes sides with the husband of course because he seems to be the one who is sane, but then we suddenly see that he is out-numbered. Even though the husband believes the doctor and the wife are crazy, they are in the majority and believe his snores are the snores of others.

“The Speech on the Deathbed Edition” is very influenced by Nabokov (mostly Pale Fire) and poking fun at the entire world of literature and scholarship and literary theory. Another instance where the voice of the story (the narrator’s) is the most important aspect. I am making fun of the literary canon (the notion of who is allowed in and who is stopped at the door), even while I have great respect for the canon. It’s strange to love something while you are making fun of it but that’s the truth. I think another instance of asking the question when there really is no answer.

ÓSCAR ALARCÓN

In “Flag Raiser” you make fun of war, military ranks, and this cycle in which the least ranked soldier—whoever makes it alive—always wins. Where do you stand on the United States military policies, specially after Donald Trump’s and Kim Jong-un’s statements?

MARK HABER

It’s obvious from reading “Flag Raiser” that it’s taking an anti-war stance because the sheer absurdity of grown men, complete strangers, shooting at one another simply because the men with higher ranking are telling them to is insane. Yet that’s essentially what war is. It’s not meant as a political story—I wouldn’t even know how to write a political story—but simply as an exercise in absurdity. Wars are always more complex, with many issues and sides and arguments, but the simplicity of the people fighting is a strong contrast. You’re simply reading about a man with the basic principle: I don’t want to die. And surrounded by a world telling him: you are going to die for this thing you have nothing to do with.

ÓSCAR ALARCÓN

I think that “Skin Part Porcelain” is one of the most interesting stories I’ve read lately, mainly because it doesn’t feel like fiction at all, it’s more like a fake biography or a fake article, which I think is a huge merit. I actually doubted the existence of Luther Owens. It made me think that literary theory is just another genre, like the short story or the novel. Is literary theory real?

MARK HABER

I’m a huge fan of fictional books that read like real biographies or the studies of subjects, from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy to Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in The Americas. To weave a fiction from the invented and the real is one of my favorite pleasures. I do think literary theory exists and that it is, in many ways, its own genre. However, I have never finished a book of literary theory in my life. I’ll begin to read a book writing about the thing, and it makes me want to read the thing itself. For example, I begin to read a book dissecting Virginia Woolf and I want to put it down and read Virginia Woolf! This is not a criticism. But it is easy to poke fun at the people who build careers talking about the thing, a thing they have not created. So, “Skin, Part Porcelain” is another example of poking fun at literary theory and academia. I think literary theory and the discussion of literature is important, I do, however I’m no good at it myself and the critics, the really good literary critics, are much smarter than I am.

ÓSCAR ALARCÓN

After I finished reading “Skin, Part Porcelain” I immediately googled Luther Owens’ book, Ass Balads, which actually reminded me of Allen Ginsberg and the beat generation. Why do you think poets have so many groupies, people that follow the person and not the poetry itself? It’s like a cult of personality.

MARK HABER

There is, or was, a certain cult of personality with writers, but poets especially. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s human nature to latch onto things and before you know it begin celebrating the creator instead of the creation, in this case the poet instead of the poetry.

mark_haber3

ÓSCAR ALARCÓN

I feel that the story “Skin, Part Porcelain” is actually an article, a sort of metaliterature. As a reader, do you feel the same way?

MARK HABER

I think “Skin, Part Porcelain” can be classified under many things: a short story, a satire, and sure, an article, but always a fictional article because these people don’t exist. It is probably a little metafictional but that label always confuses me. I’ve always believed metafiction is fiction that is self-aware, right? So, I’m not certain that it’s meta and I’m not really in a position to say what it is and isn’t. I do think, after all is said and done, that it’s a fiction that discusses many nonfictional ideas, the role of the artist, books, creation and the cult of personality.

ÓSCAR ALARCÓN

“The Parking Question” is a story that criticizes and ironizes about the idea of progress, it takes the ideas of consumption and space to the ridicule. What do you think about the way neoliberal policies tend to appropriate natural spaces such as desserts, jungles and the tundra even?

MARK HABER

I actually wrote this story after getting a parking ticket for parking where I was working! I was waiting tables at a fancy restaurant in a hotel and after an eight-hour shift of serving food I saw my car had been ticketed because, like everything else in the United States, and now perhaps the world, everything is a bureaucracy. “You cannot park here, but you can park there.” “You must have the red sticker to park in the blue zone.” That kind of thing. And I get an infinite amount of pleasure from satirizing bureaucracies mainly because it’s so easy. We are talking about a slab of concrete with two painted lines, that’s it!

I was also making fun of the idea that we build businesses based on the need of the original thing. We have cellphones now, so we must have shops that repair cellphones, right? If we have cars that we pay to insure and upkeep and fill with gas then surely, we should pay to have it sit for an hour on a piece of concrete! I’m simply playing with an absurd idea and then going to its most absurd and illogical conclusion. That’s just how my imagination works.

ÓSCAR ALARCÓN

Is failure important for writers? Why?

MARK HABER

I think failure is important for everyone, not just writers. I know it’s a cliché but failure helps you improve, much more than success. When you fail it forces you to look inside yourself, ask yourself what did I do wrong, etc. So ultimately, failure is more helpful. Also, for most people failure is the norm. I mean, failing at something usually happens a lot more than succeeding and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this. Of course, ultimately you want to enjoy success which is something different for everyone.

ÓSCAR ALARCÓN

Here’s a question I ask every writer I interview: what is love?

MARK HABER

Wow. What do I think love is? I’m really not trying to duck this question, but in all honesty and all sincerity, I do not know. It exists but it’s not one simple thing, it’s many different things and for different people. However, I certainly do believe in it.